I’m a defecting screenwriter. Novels and screenplays are so different. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work in both disciplines. Let me share what I’ve learned from the other side of the fence: yes, the grass is greener.
Kidding. Your side is the greenest. Please don’t hurt me.
Just like every writer I have ever met, I enjoy movies and TV shows way more than I should. I binge occasionally… and it’s wonderful. I believe that there are lessons to be learned from any style of writing, so I like using story examples from film. Hope you don’t mind.
Even if you do mind, you can’t stop me. I was just being polite. This is my blog. Stop telling me what to do, this is my life!
Sorry about that. My inner rebellious teenager got out for a moment. I put him back in his kennel.
Why I Almost Walked out of the Theater During Captain Phillips
It ended up being an incredible movie, and I was truly moved by Tom Hank’s performance. He was robbed at the Oscars. Pisses me off.
But, I was so taken aback by the abrasive expository dialogue in the first couple minutes, it wrecked the intro for me.
To refresh your memory, here is the opening scene abbreviated:
Tom Hanks and his wife prep to leave their house. Tom packs, looks at his itinerary and gets in the van with his wife.
Once on the road, this is a paraphrased version of their conversation:
Wife: “I know this is what we do, this is our life, but it just seems like the world is moving so fast, and right now things are changing so much.”
Tom Hanks: “It’s not going to be easy in the world for our two sons. Danny isn’t doing too well in school. Lots of competition for jobs out there. Harder now. Gotta be strong to survive out there.”
That section of dialogue is so unrealistic. Why? Because they’re married. They have seen the progression of these events, so they don’t have to re-establish with one another that they have two sons, and that Tom Hanks is a family man despite traveling so often — which is the only reason that scene exists: to bring the audience up to speed.
But the wife knows that already.
Everybody knows the golden rule, “show don’t tell.” So I’ve decided to beat on a different drum today. Sometimes you have to tell. It’d be a silent movie if you only show, and it’d be boring if you only told. There has to be a balance.
A story can’t be set up without a bit of history explained. So the real question is: How can I explain history without insulting my reader’s intelligence?
1. Be Meager
Expository dialogue is like a prostate exam: no one likes it, but it needs to be done to ensure everything is clear.
Cut any exposition that does not further the story. If a scene exists just to explain a situation, for the love of god, cut it from your story. A scene = connected events that change a character’s situation, desire, or perspective.
2. Add Conflict
An argument is prime real estate to bring up the past. There might be yelling involved, maybe some finger pointing, but your reader won’t notice you’re being expository if you sprinkle a little into the heat of a battle.
Boring dialogue: “Back when we were at Harvard, things were so much easier. It’s been what, twenty years? It’s hard to keep going now. I thought it’d be easier. I just want to quit.”
By adding some conflict to this, we can convey the same history in a way that’s more interesting.
Better dialogue: “You’d think people change, wouldn’t you? You’re the same slouch I met at Harvard. Twenty years of the same bull. The same entitled, lazy bastard who quits when the quitting’s easy.”
Suddenly, the audience draws in because there’s conflict. The character is being challenged to change. And, we incidentally learned the history that these two characters share in the process.
3. Be Stieg Larsson
Not literally. That’s weird.
In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the main character Mikael Blomkvist is introduced in a courtroom where he is being tried for libel. The case is highly televised, so reporters cover Blomkvist’s past to catch viewers up on the developing story.
Oopsies. Stieg just explained his main character’s past devoid of clunking dialogue.
Take advantage of people whose job it is to be expository: judges, reporters, journalists, police officers, principles, scientist… etc. These characters can give a simple synopsis to the audience.
WARNING: this is becoming increasingly cliche. If you use a similar approach, please try to be sparing. Don’t try to explain everything through one character. That comes across as a cop-out.
So, to recap: an argumentative prostate exam by Stieg Larsson. Remember that and you remember the essence of expository dialogue.
Don’t be self-conscious about expository dialogue in your first drafts. In your second draft, highlight every line of expository dialogue and make sure it’s absolutely necessary in order to propel the story forward. If it is, then edit it until it’s concise and natural.
Question of the day: What’s an example of obvious expository dialogue you either saw or wrote yourself? Is this an area you find difficult to navigate?